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On Happiness

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“Everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.” Will Rogers

Last summer I found myself once again lost in the long-since familiar state of depression. I was confused about my own direction and what the future might hold, but more than anything I felt like I was missing out on some larger sense of happiness. No matter where I’d go it seemed as though people were simply happier than me: If they didn’t appear to have a greater sense of direction or purpose, at least their day-to-day lives seemed to give them a greater sense of satisfaction. Even more, friends around me were pairing up with loving and supportive partners, pursuing fulfilling careers, and dedicating their free time to gratifying hobbies.

To better understand what I might be missing out on I did what any technophile would do took to the Internet, but immediate Google results led me no deeper than transparent articles extolling such platitudes as savoring the moment and finding happiness in ourselves. As I began to dig a little deeper in my research however, I soon discovered that I was not alone in my search, but more, that happiness itself hasn’t exactly been a constant over time. In fact, it’s long since been a hot point that has been argued spiritedly throughout the ages. Still no hard answers, I thought, but at least it appeared as though I wasn’t alone in my confusion.

Continuing down the rabbit hole it quickly became apparent just how confusing this illusive “happiness” actually is. How could it be that “happy” people actually die earlier than “unhappy” people; that citizens in “happier” nations are likelier to commit suicide than those in less happy nations; that anger helps us survive, and maybe even that an overabundance of pleasurable things in our lives could distort and warp our reality, counterintuitively distancing us from the main goal we’re all striving for? If, for instance, happiness is the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people, as 18th century philosopher Jeremy Bentham suggested, why is it that we are so driven for our own happiness, yet are so quick to turn a blind eye to the pain and suffering of the less fortunate in the communities around us, both local and globally? Happiness, it would appear, is as much a mystery now as it’s ever been.

As my exploration continued it was the New York Times‘ Jim Holt who seemed to offer the most easily digestible historical recap of how the perception of happiness has changed over time, “The history of the idea of happiness can be neatly summarized in a series of bumper sticker equations: Happiness = Luck (Homeric), Happiness = Virtue (classical), Happiness = Heaven (medieval), Happiness = Pleasure (Enlightenment) and Happiness = A Warm Puppy (contemporary).” Each and every culture, school of philosophy, and religion has had a unique historical take on what happiness is and how it might be achieved, and tracing it through the annals of history is a massive undertaking in and of itself. But by merely grazing the surface of that exploration process what was initially most surprising wasn’t the idea that happiness has changed through time, but that entitlement to happiness is actually a relatively new invent.

The very feeling that I thought I was missing out on — deserved, even — and saw around me in seemingly every facet, might not actually be a guarantee in life. “The pursuit of happiness” is built into the fabric of the Declaration of Independence as a cornerstone of America, suggesting that we all have a right to capture this highly sought after intangible state. But as the country (and all countries, for that matter) continues to age, it is becoming increasingly apparent that this pursuit has mutated into a system that leaves us perpetually grasping at an invisible carrot rather than an taking on a quest for something truly greater. What, exactly, is is that we’re all looking for and how do we find it?

“Happiness comes in small doses, folks. It’s a cigarette or a chocolate chip cookie or a five second orgasm. That’s it, okay!” Denis Leary

Leaning closer toward the modern end of Holt’s historical spectrum might be someone such as English philosopher John Locke who suggested happiness to be pleasure and its many forms. But what is it then that delivers pleasure: wealth, education, physical beauty, religion, spirituality, family, friends, fame, power, sex, food, alcohol, drugs? To some degree I agree with comedian Denis Leary’s line about happiness, as we each have our own unique interests which grant us that momentary satisfaction, yet prevailing thought seems to counter that constant search for the next small dose of relief.

Happiness as a finish line is a fleeting view as continuous attempts at making a mad dash for the end seem to only result in some sort of failure to hit that mark. (And forget the anxiety, disappointment, and depression that accompany the failure!) Without getting all the journey IS the destination on you, it’s only when we begin to change the entire scope of what happiness might be that we’re able to see that there is no one single finish line we’re building toward; part of doing so comes within the issue of definition though: What exactly does happiness feel like on an individual level?

The theory that we each have our own personal starting points from which we base our happiness levels on is vital to understanding our own personal pursuits toward the goal. New York Magazine’s Jennifer Senior approached this concept in her 2006 article “Some Dark Thoughts on Happiness” where she explained, “Human beings adapt quickly to their circumstances because all of us have natural hedonic ‘set points,’ to which our bodies are likely to return, like our weight.” When these “set points” are added to the mix, the equation of how to achieve happiness becomes that much more complicated, but interestingly enough, possibly a little less confusing.

The comparison between a mental “set point” and a physical one makes much more sense within the context of the work of David Lykken. In 1996 the former University of Minnesota researcher suggested that about half of an individual’s satisfaction is derived from genetic programming after analyzing information on some 4000 sets of twins born between 1936 and 1955. Lykken then concluded that “It may be that trying to be happier is as futile as trying to be taller.” He later redacted the statement however, adding that “It’s clear that we can change our happiness levels widely — up or down.” Despite the impact of his first conclusion, Lykken’s change of stance would seem a wise one when contrasting it to the happiness formula which is credited to psychologists Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ken Sheldon, David Schkade, and Martin Seligman.

The simple equation of H = S + C + V proposes that happiness is equal to our biological set point plus our individual circumstances plus our voluntary activities. But what sort of “voluntary activities” might lead to happiness given that most attempts at pleasure seem to bring about a momentary change, at best? Perhaps actions that avoid shallow stabs at immediate gratification in lieu of those which aim for something more. Maybe even something “virtuous.”

“People ask why I study happiness, and I say ‘Why study anything else?’ It’s the Holy Grail. We’re studying the thing that all human action is directed toward.” Dan Gilbert

While the meaning behind one of the Declaration of Independence’s most quoted lines remains largely up for debate — it’s hard to conclude with any concrete certainty whether “the pursuit of happiness” was to suggest that happiness be a birthright, simply the right to exercise a state of being, or something altogether separate from that — in tracking down its origin, author Carol Hamilton recently concluded that the term’s genesis might have less to do with Thomas Jefferson creatively piggybacking the famous prose of Locke, and more to do with the theories constructed by some of his philosophical heroes.

When John Locke, Samuel Johnson, and Thomas Jefferson wrote of “the pursuit of happiness,” they were invoking the Greek and Roman philosophical tradition in which happiness is bound up with the civic virtues of courage, moderation, and justice. Because they are civic virtues, not just personal attributes, they implicate the social aspect of eudaimonia. The pursuit of happiness, therefore, is not merely a matter of achieving individual pleasure. That is why Alexander Hamilton and other founders referred to “social happiness.”

Eudaimonia, the Greek term for happiness, makes sense here and is grossly appropriate in terms of its place within the foundation of modern happiness. But when connected to areté, the Greek term associated with “virtue” (though most often translated as “excellence”), the combination do well to spell out the basis for the “classical” view of happiness which Holt made reference to with his “bumper stickers.” Interestingly, this construct holds up remarkably well when considered within the context of the “happiness formula” and which might be the most beneficial “voluntary activities” to incorporate into our own lives.

Much as Aristotle did before him, Epicurus, who worked within the realm of Hedonism — the philosophical view not the titillating Jamaican resort destination — put forth ideas surrounding what might deliver actual happiness while also making clear distinctions between perceived and actual sources of happiness. Epicurus might now be considered somewhat of a modern-day minimalist as he believed that the most good actually came from the most modest of pleasures, compounded over the course of time. Praising the value of knowledge, friendship, and living a temperate life of areté, Epictetus preached that an individual could experience the most satisfying of lives by going without such unnecessary luxuries as fame, excessive wealth, or over-indulgence. Aristotle, however, defined happiness in different terms.

In his composition titled Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle wrote that “the happy man lives well and does well,” further adding to that statement by arguing that happiness was to be achieved by living a life of virtue and continuously searching for the “golden mean” by striving to find balance between two excesses. He also explained, “For as it is not one swallow or one fine day that makes a spring, so it is not one day or a short time that makes a man blessed and happy.” Living one’s life in a virtuous manner, even introducing an ethical or moral slant in calculating happiness, would appear to lead to what Aristotle would regard “the good life.” Incidentally, just as Jefferson might have written into the pursuit of happiness a meaning that we should each have the right to practice happiness, Aristotle’s work suggests that he believed that happiness isn’t in itself pleasure, but the result of practicing a virtuous life.

“I think that there is a connection between not getting my work done and feeling guilty or ashamed of myself. Which ultimately manifests itself into even more unproductive behavior.” This journal entry that I wrote in 2009 seems rather obvious in retrospect, but in my life these words have often been true: the times where I’ve felt the weakest have been when I realized that I had failed myself. This might be why the Aristotelian viewpoint makes so much sense to me as his philosophy breaks down the goal so clearly, leaving happiness appearing far less impossible to achieve than a quick Internet search or trip to the library initially led me to believe. But it’s when the work of far more recent thinkers is figured into the bigger picture that the nature of happiness in today’s world really begins to take hold. Research this past decade has come to offer numerous examples of how to incorporate the historical views of happiness and translate their finer points into today’s landscape. For example, Seligman, the previously mentioned positive psychologist, suggests “authentic happiness” in today’s world to be the combination of pleasure, engagement, and meaning, which all align nicely with the higher living taught by the aforementioned Greek thinkers.

Additional reflections will follow in the coming weeks, each inspecting the work of such positive psychologists as Seligman, Gilbert, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, each exploring not only how shifting focus toward eudaimonia or areté appear to offer a far more rewarding life, but also how re-approaching ideas surrounding our individual perceptions, expectations, and capability to adapt might drastically change our ability to live lives of maximum happiness.